The problem with hagiography

After Ravi Zacharias died, I and many others wrote glowing tributes to his legacy.

Months or years later, most were retracted, deleted, and disowned!

It’s made me ‘allergic’ to hagiography. This is a style of writing where a dead person is typically praised as a saint. The word itself reveals the meaning: “hagios” or holy and “graphien” or to write. While it could simply mean sacred writings or writing about a religious person, the term now connotes writing about someone without substantive criticism.

There are several problems with hagiography.

Perhaps the main one, to my mind, is that it isn’t truthful. For Christians, this should be a severe deficit. Instead of presenting an accurate picture of someone, we get an idealized one.

Second, hagiographies can be pretty lousy writing. Why? We have an artificial presentation that lacks a connection to reality. The unrelentingly positive presentation can become tiresome without nuance, context, or contrast.

Third, those unfortunate or naive enough to take hagiography seriously are likely to feel unrealistic expectations. If God can so transform that person, why not me? This can develop insecurity, guilt, shame, or resentment. It could also foster an unhealthy ambition.

Fourth, we fail to learn from someone’s mistakes by only mentioning the positive. We all make them! The unwillingness to address them, even among those we admire, can perpetuate their errors. In a worst-case scenario, we might have a blind spot to their mistakes because we are complicit in making them ourselves.

In addition, if we defensively insist upon only speaking well of someone, then we may develop a culture that is resistant to good-faith critique. Of course, this erodes our capacity to offer a gracious and caring response even to hostile criticism.

Finally, as Christians, our ultimate allegiance is to God. We worship God alone! By elevating other humans too highly, we may develop a kind of idolatry. In a context where celebrity is often valued more than faithfulness, this seems like a temptation to guard against.

What issues do you see with hagiography?


Conceptually, writing about the accomplishments of a matured Christ follower soon after their death seems like the right thing to do to me. If they are not written, their work will be forgotten when they are no more. If God rewards our work for Him in heaven, we could do it here on earth. Even when a Christ follower has not lived a perfect life, hearing about ministry when accurate, can be a source of immediate encouragement to those grieving the loss of a loved one.

Yet, when I consider how hagiography has been practiced in the world religions, it eventually leads to worship of saints. This takes away glory from the One Creator God to whom it is due. It can take our eyes of Jesus’s teachings and follow the methods and practices of an imperfect saint. Hagiography can inspire wayward spiritual pursuits that are about performance/spiritual power rather than on dependence on the Holy Spirit.

What happened at RZIM is extremely painful. Its disheartening to see how religion can be just a facade. There are however plenty other simple honest pastors who probably deserve a hagiography. If someone aimed for life of humility in Christ, death seems like a good time to exalt the person.